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The business world is working hard to restore trust. Will our politicians follow suit?

A Vote Leave campaign lorry in Southampton. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA. - Credit: PA

Trust in British society has been in short supply – and the Brexit vote did not help. As JON GOULDING explains, businesses have been trying to change public attitudes, but it requires the help of politicians too.

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t agree that in the run-up to the Brexit vote and in its aftermath, truth and authenticity were in short supply. It isn’t a biased point. Both sides played fast and loose with the facts. And now, looking back on it, it’s clear that the whole Brexit saga was both a source of and a reflection of the distrust that runs through British society. There were lies. There was misinformation. There was cynicism. And it wasn’t the preserve of politicians.

But trust in British society has been in short supply for some time. The public has slowly turned against the tech world in the past two years or so after a number of leaks, scandals, and repeated losses or misuses of personal data. The entire Silicon Valley community, who are undeniably doing some amazing work, have been cast of late almost as comic-book villains.

Faith in traditional media has fallen, too, in part down to rising doubts about the intentions of the media world and the proliferation of ‘fake news’ — a phrase which is now thrown out to undermine or dismiss even objective fact, confusing things further. And in business, a series of misjudgements made mostly by high-profile brands has had a devastating effect on consumer trust. In fact the propensity of brands to contrive a ‘purpose’ rather than communicate their actual purpose in a distinctive and engaging way has led to widespread cynicism and the creation of the phrase ‘woke-washing’. Gillette, Audi, Pepsi and many other big-name companies have had to answer to the public.

In politics, the four years has laid bare the extent of this loss of trust and how damaging it can be. Though it was declining even beforehand — a study by Survation found that the largest percentage of people who did not vote in 2015 did so because they were simply disillusioned, that they did not feel their beliefs were represented by the candidates and that those candidates were not to be trusted — it became particularly acute in the build-up to the Brexit vote, when obvious lies were told, statistics were willfully misinterpreted, and misleading data was distributed without the proper qualification or context. And however die-hard you might be, it has to be acknowledged that there was plenty of it on either side.

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I can’t speak for politicians from an insider’s perspective. But in the space I inhabit as the CEO of a London-based creative advertising agency, it’s clear to see that some brands are starting to respond to this loss of trust. At the very least, they realise they made some misjudgements in recent years, some of them more serious than others. When once ‘trustworthy’ used to be dismissed as a hygiene factor in a brand’s personality credentials, clients and agencies are now starting to realise that the secret to rebuilding consumer trust is to fully embrace it and put it at the core of their communications.

The difficult challenge for a creative agency is how to communicate that without its seeming bland or overly worthy. But that’s what good creative agencies do: they distill the one thing the brand genuinely does brilliantly for customers and then dramatise that in a really fresh and distinctive way creatively. That’s better and trying to get noticed by saying something inauthentic just for the short-term ‘attention factor’. If brands don’t have enough confidence in themselves to think they can make their real story interesting, then they might need to find a new creative agency rather than resort to more and more dramatic ‘fake brand promises’.

So can our politicians look at this evolution and follow suit? I won’t hold my breath. And no one knows the challenges in the coming years that will test their ability to tell the truth when it really matters. The Coronavirus pandemic is testing every politician in the world right now to behave in a trustworthy, empathetic and responsible way, and it will be fascinating to see if some deal with that pressure better than others.

The truth is that we have a massive challenge ahead. Not least managing the fallout from the Coronavirus for the country but our Brexit process is not even close to being ‘done’, as some would have us believe. The first part may be over, but the real work is only just beginning. And throughout this period, trust will be paramount. There must be trust not only in our political institutions, so that they can work effectively, but trust between parties during negotiations and trust in the new relationships we have yet to form with our partners abroad. After all the lies and the mistruths, that trust will be hard to earn. But it can be earned by serving the public well and communicating honestly. The work begins now.

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